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Criticism and Theory

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An Architect in Search of Practice

I paused at the stoop and thought this could be the basis of a good book. The story of a young man who went deep into the bowels of the academy in order to understand architecture and found it had been on his doorstep all along. This had an air of hokeyness about it, but it had been a tough couple of days and I was feeling sentimental about the warm confines of the studio which had unceremoniously discharged me upon the world.--from Down Detour RoadWhat does it say about the value of architecture that as the world faces economic and ecological crises, unprecedented numbers of architects are out of work? This is the question that confronted architect Eric Cesal as he finished graduate school at the onset of the worst financial meltdown in a generation. Down Detour Road is his journey: one that begins off-course, and ends in a hopeful new vision of architecture. Like many architects of his generation, Cesal confronts a cold reality. Architects may assure each other of their own importance, but society has come to view architecture as a luxury it can do without. For Cesal, this recognition becomes an occasion to rethink architecture and its value from the very core. He argues that the times demand a new architecture, an empowered architecture that is useful and relevant. New architectural values emerge as our cultural values shift: from high risks to safe bets, from strong portfolios to strong communities, and from clean lines to clean energy.This is not a book about how to run a firm or a profession; it doesn’t predict the future of architectural form or aesthetics. It is a personal story--and in many ways a generational one: a story that follows its author on a winding detour across the country, around the profession, and into a new architectural reality.

The Real

It is often suggested that architecture is more "real" than the other arts, more grounded and definitive. Yet even the most fundamental and concrete elements of architecture are often designed to conceal. This issue of Perspecta—the oldest and most distinguished student-edited architectural journal in America—embraces the paradoxical nature of the real, presenting it as a lens that magnifies the strategies and tactics of architecture, past, present, and future. How does architecture create real effects, change our built environment, and respond to crises? What are the tricks and trompe l'oeils of contemporary practice? Amid fake Europes, shape-shifting materials, and underwater asylums, Perspecta 42 navigates architecture's disciplinary boundaries to locate the real in the most unlikely of places.

The real has been central to our understanding of architecture for the last hundred years, even if the discussion has been couched in other terms. While architecture anxiously situates itself between building and discourse, it never fully capitulates to either side. Through historical inquiry, theoretical writing, and contemporary projects, Perspecta 42 asserts that now, more than ever, architecture is in search of the real.

The issue revolves around three encounters with the real. First, the physical: texts, projects, and conversations that relate to issues of material properties and our bodily surroundings—thoughts on such topics as sensory environments, smart materials, and the floor as a landscape of logistics. Second, authenticity: explorations of representation and hybrid realities, including the digital and the surreal. And, finally, institutional failures and man-made or natural crises: considerations of war, the current economic calamity, and racial politics.

Contributors: Michelle Addington, Lucia Allais, Alejandro Aravena, Mario Ballesteros, BIG, Andrew Blauvelt, Keller Easterling, Olafur Eliasson and Kurt Forster, Hal Foster, Lorens Holm, Jiang Jun, L.E.FT., Armin Linke, Metahaven, Spyros Papapetros, Emmanuel Petit, Antoine Picon, Bill Rankin, Damon Rich, Francois Roche, Matthew Stadler, Albena Yaneva, Yoon+Howeler, Andrew Zago, Mirko Zardini

Politics after Modernism

In Architecture or Techno-Utopia, Felicity Scott traces an alternative genealogy of the postmodern turn in American architecture, focusing on a set of experimental practices and polemics that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Scott examines projects, conceptual work, exhibitions, publications, pedagogical initiatives, and agitprop performances that had as their premise the belief that architecture could be ethically and politically relevant. Although most of these strategies were far from the mainstream of American architectural practice, Scott suggests that their ambition—the demonstration of architecture's ongoing potential for social and political engagement—was nonetheless remarkable.

Scott examines both the marginal and the prominent: the Marxist architectural criticism of Meyer Schapiro; the curatorial work of Arthur Drexler at New York's Museum of Modern Art; Emilio Ambasz's introduction of ideas from environmental design, European critical theory, and Italian radicalism at MoMA; the counterculture's embrace of Buckminster Fuller's domes; psychedelic and intermedia environments; the video and architectural collective Ant Farm and the politics of ecology; the early experimental practices of Rem Koolhaas; and, connecting these earlier practices to the present day, the missed opportunities for political engagement in the competition sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for the World Trade Center site. At a time of increasing receptiveness to thinking politically about architecture and design, Architecture or Techno-Utopia offers a detailed account of the ways in which the work of architects and designers can speak to the contemporary condition.

Reading the Late Avant-Garde

While it is widely recognized that the advanced architecture of the 1970s left a legacy of experimentation and theoretical speculation as intense as any in architecture’s history, there has been no general theory of that ethos. Now, in Architecture’s Desire, K. Michael Hays writes an account of the “late avant-garde” as an architecture systematically twisting back on itself, pondering its own historical status, and deliberately exploring architecture’s representational possibilities right up to their absolute limits. In close readings of the brooding, melancholy silence of Aldo Rossi, the radically reductive “decompositions” and archaeologies of Peter Eisenman, the carnivalesque excesses of John Hejduk, and the “cinegrammatic” delirium of Bernard Tschumi, Hays narrates the story of architecture confronting its own boundaries with objects of ever more reflexivity, difficulty, and intransigence.The late avant-garde is the last architecture with philosophical aspirations, an architecture that could think philosophical problems through architecture rather than merely illustrate them. It takes architecture as the object of its own reflection, which in turn produces an unrelenting desire. Using the tools of critical theory together with the structure of Lacan’s triad imaginary-symbolic-real, Hays constructs a theory of architectural desire that is historically specific and yet sets the terms and the challenges of all subsequent architectural practice, including today’s.

Architect Léon Krier’s doodles, drawings, and ideograms make arguments in images, without the circumlocutions of prose. Drawn with wit and grace, these clever sketches do not try to please or flatter the architectural establishment. Rather, they make an impassioned argument against what Krier sees as the unquestioned doctrines and unacknowledged absurdities of contemporary architecture. Thus he shows us a building bearing a suspicious resemblance to Norman Foster’s famous London “gherkin” as an example of “priapus hubris” (threatened by detumescence and “priapus nemesis”); he charts “Random Uniformity” (“fake simplicity”) and “Uniform Randomness” (“fake complexity”); he draws bloated “bulimic” and disproportionately scrawny “anorexic” columns flanking a graceful “classical” one; and he compares “private virtue” (modernist architects’ homes and offices) to “public vice” (modernist architects’ “creations”).

 

Krier wants these witty images to be tools for re-founding traditional urbanism and architecture. He argues for mixed-use cities, of “architectural speech” rather than “architectural stutter,” and pointedly plots the man-vehicle-landneed ratio of “sub-urban man” versus that of a city dweller. In an age of energy crisis, he writes (and his drawings show), we “build in the wrong places, in the wrong patterns, materials, densities, and heights, and for the wrong number of dwellers”; a return to traditional architectures and building and settlement techniques can be the means of ecological reconstruction. Each of Krier’s provocative and entertaining images is worth more than a thousand words of theoretical abstraction.

Writing Architecture series

The Yale Architectural Journal

The Grand Tour was once the culmination of an architect's education. As a journey to the cultural sites of Europe, the Tour's agenda was clearly defined: to study ancient monuments in order to reproduce them at home. Architects returned from their Grand Tours with rolls of measured drawings and less tangible spoils: patronage, commissions, and cultural cachet. Although no longer carried out under the same name, the practices inscribed by the Grand Tour have continued relevance for contemporary architects. This edition of Perspecta—the oldest and most distinguished student-edited architectural journal in America—uses the Grand Tour, broadly conceived, as a model for understanding the history, current incarnation, and future of architectural travel.

Perspecta 41 asks: where do we go, how do we record what we see, what do we bring back, and how does it change us? Contributions include explorations of architects' travels in times of war; Peter Eisenman's account of his career-defining 1962 trip with Colin Rowe around Europe in a Volkswagen; Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's discussion of their traveling and its effect on their collecting, teaching, and design work; drawings documenting the monolithic churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia; an account of how James Gamble Rogers designed Yale's Sterling Library and residential colleges using his collection of postcards; and a proposed itinerary for a contemporary Grand Tour—in America.

Contributors:
Esra Akcan, Aaron Betsky, Ljiljana Blagojević, Edward Burtynsky, Matthew Coolidge and CLUI, Gillian Darley, Brook Denison, Helen Dorey, Keller Easterling, Peter Eisenman, Dan Graham and Mark Wasiuta, Jeffery Inaba and C-Lab, Sam Jacob, Michael Meredith, Colin Montgomery, Dietrich Neumann, Enrique Ramirez, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian, Kazys Varnelis, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Enrique Walker.

The Yale Architectural Journal

Contemporary architecture is in many ways a monstrous thing. It is bigger, more broadly defined, increasingly complicated, more costly, and stylistically and formally heterogeneous—if not downright unhinged. Not only is the scale of the built environment expanding, but so is the territory of the architectural profession itself. A perfect storm of history, technology, economics, politics, and pedagogy has generated a moment in time in which anything seems possible. The results have been at times strange and even frightening.

Long ago, the birth of an abnormal creature was interpreted as a sign of looming trouble. These monstra—from the Latin monere, "to warn" and monstrare, "to show"—were viewed with both fear and fascination. This fortieth issue of Perspecta—the oldest and most distinguished student-edited architectural journal in America—examines architecture past and present through the lens of the monster. The contributors—a diverse group of scholars, practitioners, and artists—embrace the multitude of meanings this term carries in an attempt to understand how architecture arrived at its present situation and where it may be going. Perspecta 40 represents in itself a kind of monster—a hybrid, jumbled, conflicting amalgamation of work and ideas that looks at the past in new ways and tells of things to come.

Contributors:
Philip Bernstein, Mario Carpo, Arindam Dutta, Ed Eigen, Mark Gage, Gensler, Marcelyn Gow and Ulrika Karlsson (servo), Catherine Ingraham, Mark Jarzombek, Terry Kirk, Leon Krier, Greg Lynn, John May, John McMorrough, Colin Montgomery, Guy Nordenson, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Emmanuel Petit, Kevin Roche, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (Atelier Bow-Wow) and Ryuji Fujimura, Michael Weinstock, Claire Zimmerman.

Making, Meaning, and Network Culture

Artifacts (including works of architecture) play dual roles; they simultaneously perform functions and carry meaning. Columns support roofs, but while the sturdy Tuscan and Doric types traditionally signify masculinity, the slim and elegant Ionic and Corinthian kinds read as feminine. Words are often inscribed on objects. (On a door: “push” or “pull.”) Today, information is digitally encoded (dematerialized) and displayed (rematerialized) to become part of many different objects, at one moment appearing on a laptop screen and at another, perhaps, on a building facade (as in Times Square). Well-designed artifacts succeed in being both useful and meaningful. In World’s Greatest Architect, William Mitchell offers a series of snapshots--short essays and analyses--that examine the systems of function and meaning currently operating in our buildings, cities, and global networks. In his writing, Mitchell makes connections that aren’t necessarily obvious but are always illuminating, moving in one essay from Bush-Cheney’s abuse of language to Robert Venturi’s argument against rigid ideology and in favor of graceful pragmatism. He traces the evolution of Las Vegas from Sin/Sign City to family-friendly resort and residential real estate boomtown. A purchase of chips leads not only to a complementary purchase of beer but to thoughts of Eames chairs (like Pringles) and Gehry (fun to imitate with tortilla chips in refried beans). As for who the world’s greatest architect might be, here’s a hint: he’s also the oldest.

Inventing Architectural Modernism

Architecture, at least since the beginning of the twentieth century, has suspended historical references in favor of universalized abstraction. In the decades after the Second World War, when architectural historians began to assess the legacy of the avant-gardes in order to construct a coherent narrative of modernism’s development, they were inevitably influenced by contemporary concerns. In Histories of the Immediate Present, Anthony Vidler examines the work of four historians of architectural modernism and the ways in which their histories were constructed as more or less overt programs for the theory and practice of design in a contemporary context. Vidler looks at the historical approaches of Emil Kaufmann, Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham, and Manfredo Tafuri, and the specific versions of modernism advanced by their historical narratives. Vidler shows that the modernism conceived by Kaufmann was, like the late Enlightenment projects he revered, one of pure, geometrical forms and elemental composition; that of Rowe saw mannerist ambiguity and complexity in contemporary design; Banham’s modernism took its cue from the aspirations of the futurists; and the “Renaissance modernism” of Tafuri found its source in the division between the technical experimentation of Brunelleschi and the cultural nostalgia of Alberti. Vidler’s investigation demonstrates the inevitable collusion between history and design that pervades all modern architectural discourse--and has given rise to some of the most interesting architectual experiments of the postwar period. Anthony Vidler is Dean and Professor of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union, New York. He is the author of Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (2000), The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (1992), both published by The MIT Press, and other books.

Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics

The forced polarity between form and function in considerations of architecture--opposing art to social interests, ethics to poetic expression--obscures the deep connections between ethical and poetical values in architectural tradition. Architecture has been, and must continue to be, writes Alberto Pérez-Gómez, built upon love. Modernity has rightly rejected past architectural excesses, but, Pérez-Gómez argues, the materialistic and technological alternatives it proposes do not answer satisfactorily the complex desire that defines humanity. True architecture is concerned with far more than fashionable form, affordable homes, and sustainable development; it responds to a desire for an eloquent place to dwell--one that lovingly provides a sense of order resonant with our dreams. In Built upon Love Pérez-Gómez uncovers the relationship between love and architecture in order to find the points of contact between poetics and ethics--between the architect's wish to design a beautiful world and architecture's imperative to provide a better place for society.Eros, as first imagined by the early lyric poets of classical Greece, is the invisible force at the root of our capacity to create and comprehend the poetic image. Pérez-Gómez examines the nature of architectural form in the light of eros, seduction, and the tradition of the poetic image in Western architecture. He charts the ethical dimension of architecture, tracing the connections between philia--the love of friends that entails mutual responsibility among equals--and architectural program. He explores the position of architecture at the limits of language and discusses the analogical language of philia in modernist architectural theory. Finally, he uncovers connections between ethics and poetics, describing a contemporary practice of architecture under the sign of love, incorporating both eros and philia.

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